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AFC West camp preview: Will this be Chargers’ final camp in San Diego?

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The Sports Xchange

SAN DIEGO — It’s that time of another glorious San Diego summer where the locals cry, “Go Chargers!”

But, this July, that sounds different.

The Chargers open training camp on Thursday, and many are wondering whether it will be the first practice of the last summer in San Diego.

Other than dominating the headlines about fleeing “America’s Finest City” for Los Angeles, the Chargers have been busy. They had a fine offseason of their own.

First-round running back Melvin Gordon has yet to punch the clock, but excuse the Chargers for pinching themselves. Long eager for a reliable running game, the Chargers could get one from Gordon, who replaces Ryan Mathews. The former Wisconsin star is physical and polished.

Of course, the Chargers go only as far as quarterback Philip Rivers’ right arm takes them. But don’t overlook the benefits of a running game to a quarterback in his 12th year, especially following a 2014 season in which he absorbed too many violent hits.

Rivers will have a different target to aim for in Stevie Johnson. The veteran wide receiver has gushed about his good fortune to play with a passer of Rivers’ caliber. These two could be productive.

A reliable target won’t be in the mix, at least not right away. All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates has been suspended by the NFL for four games for violating the league’s drug policy.

The defense should be improved, but will the most important part of it? The Chargers’ tepid pass rush last year — 26 sacks — was among the reasons they missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Linebacker Melvin Ingram has been full of promise for too long. It’s time he takes the lead of getting to the pocket, especially with mentor Dwight Freeney having moved on.

The run defense also needs to perk up. Why else would the team burn a second-round pick on Miami’s Perry Dedne with two returning starters in Donald Butler and Manti Te’o?

The secondary sees the return of cornerback Brandon Flowers and the long goodbye for safety Eric Weddle — he wasn’t offered a contract extension. Can Jason Verrett stay healthy? He looked good in six games. Can the free safety hole be filled by various candidates?

CAMP CALENDAR

July 29: Entire team reports.

July 30: First practice

Aug. 21: Last practice.

–Team strength: Quarterback.

It’s difficult to overstate just how much Philip Rivers means to this franchise. His numbers have climbed since coach Mike McCoy took over in 2013. In addition to Rivers’ production, he leads through his dedication and effort. Rivers’ all-in approach to the game leaks over to others — and not just those on offense. Rivers could be even better this year considering these factors: a running game with Melvin Gordon to lean on; a new target to throw to in Steve Johnson; improved field position because of returner Jacoby Jones.

Breakout player: Cornerback Jason Verrett.

From Rivers to Brandon Flowers to the coaches, Jason Verrett was the object of much praise during the offseason workouts. Now, can he stay on the field to prove them right? Verrett, the first-round pick last year, showed great in the games he played as a rookie. But it was a small sample size as he was restricted to six games after suffering a shoulder injury. If Verrett can stay between the lines, he could help point the Chargers back to the playoffs. But, in the NFL, your best ability is often your availability. Verrett has to show he can stay fit; if he does, many with the Chargers predict greatness.

–Work in progress: Outside linebacker.

The Chargers were dreadful rushing the passer last season, and that was before Dwight Freeney and Jarret Johnson retired. It’s imperative that outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu stay on the field and play on a more consistent basis. Ingram, a former first-round pick, has coaches talking about his new maturity and he is lighter. Attaochu was a project his rookie year out of Georgia Tech. Coaches say he is ready to make the jump that comes from Year 1 to Year 2. But, in the 3-4 alignment, defensive tackle Corey Liuget had a team-high 4.5 sacks last year. That’s good for Liuget but speaks to the lack of pressure coming from the outside linebackers.


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